Linking landscape-scale differences in forage to ungulate nutritional ecology

Kelly M. Proffitt, Mark Hebblewhite, Wibke Peters, Nicole Hupp, Julee Shamhart

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    Abstract

    Understanding how habitat and nutritional condition affect ungulate populations is necessary for informing management, particularly in areas experiencing carnivore recovery and declining ungulate population trends. Variations in forage species availability, plant phenological stage, and the abundance of forage make it challenging to understand landscape-level effects of nutrition on ungulates. We developed an integrated spatial modeling approach to estimate landscape-level elk (Cervus elaphus) nutritional resources in two adjacent study areas that differed in coarse measures of habitat quality and related the consequences of differences in nutritional resources to elk body condition and pregnancy rates. We found no support for differences in dry matter digestibility between plant samples or in phenological stage based on ground sampling plots in the two study areas. Our index of nutritional resources, measured as digestible forage biomass, varied among land cover types and between study areas. We found that altered plant composition following fires was the biggest driver of differences in nutritional resources, suggesting that maintaining a mosaic of fire history and distribution will likely benefit ungulate populations. Study area, lactation status, and year affected fall body fat of adult female elk. Elk in the study area exposed to lower summer range nutritional resources had lower nutritional condition entering winter. These differences in nutritional condition resulted in differences in pregnancy rate, with average pregnancy rates of 89% for elk exposed to higher nutritional resources and 72% for elk exposed to lower nutritional resources. Summer range nutritional resources have the potential to limit elk pregnancy rate and calf production, and these nutritional limitations may predispose elk to be more sensitive to the effects of harvest or predation. Wildlife managers should identify ungulate populations that are nutritionally limited and recognize that these populations may be more impacted by recovering carnivores or harvest than populations inhabiting more productive summer habitats.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)2156-2174
    Number of pages19
    JournalEcological Applications
    Volume26
    Issue number7
    DOIs
    StatePublished - Oct 1 2016

    Keywords

    • Body condition
    • Bottom-up
    • Cervus elaphus
    • Elk
    • Forage quality
    • Summer range

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